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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Choices for a Lifetime [Part 1 of 2]

The beauty of writing this way is that I can change horses in midstream if I feel like it. I’m interrupting the tale of the other ten shilling note, just because I feel the strong desire to tell this one first. Besides, too many horse stories at one time is overkill. So let me talk about something else, something that changed my life completely, and come back to the other ten bob note story later. It can keep. It's kept for half a century so far and will be all the better for the final maturation in the cellar of my 3.00 am mind.

I was in Grade 7. It was lunchtime and we were engrossed in our favourite game, rounders. The way we did it was to allow two kids to be team captains – not the same two every time – I don’t know how that part was decided, but most of us got a turn at it. These captains chose team members from amongst the assembled multitude [about twenty kids], till the last unfortunate was allotted a spot. They really knew their place in the playground pecking order if they were always picked last – but, on the bright side, they were always picked in one team or the other, however grudgingly, so they always got a go. They even had a chance of promotion next time round should they perform some unexpectedly creditable feat. 
   Teams chosen, you’d look at your team members to see how good yours actually was, by which I mean how many of the alpha males or females you had in it. Not necessarily the best hitters or fielders, but a sizable smattering of ones who could win disputes should they arise, as bickering about the finer points of the rounders laws was endemic in our play, and whether someone was in or out was always a fertile point of contention.
   Anyway, on this day, I was on a reasonable team with a nice balance between kids with good coordination and those with good debating stamina, should a dispute arise as to whether x was out or not. A kid from Grade 2 came down to me just as we were about to start. Grade 2s were deemed too young to play in our keenly contested games, as they tended to cry when they were declared out or got hit with the ball, and they appealed for justice to their older sisters and brothers in either team. Blood often being thicker than water – and there was an awful lot of thick blood in our school – the game flowed more freely if the Grade 2s were barred altogether.]
   ‘Mr Curtis said he wants to see you.’
   My heart  jumped, knowing that the only time he wanted to see me was when I was in trouble. I rapidly went through my repertoire of probable sins of omission and commission, but none registered significantly to justify worrying about yet another nomination for the Punishment Register. In a way, that made it worse, as you can’t prepare a defence, however weak, when you can’t anticipate the crime of which you are about to be accused. 
   But I was summoned, so there was no escape. I glanced up apprehensively at the school building. Old Jim was standing at the window looking down on the rounders field at the time; in my mind, to ensure that his directive regarding my presence in the Big Room had reached my ears. He did not have a cane in hand, and I derived a tiny measure of comfort from that; cold comfort because I knew the cane rack was only a few steps away once you got there. But when you are as wimpy about the stick as I was, you tend to grasp at any old straw, and pray that Old Jim didn’t grasp the really big straw as you came in the door. The metre long one, that is.
   My knees were knocking as I walked into the room, and I know that my lip was not that far off trembling. If you think I’m exaggerating, well, I’m happy about that, because you must imagine I was braver than I am letting on, but the truth was I was scared to death. I’d had just enough encounters with the stick to keep me in that state when summoned before the headmaster.
   ‘Yes, sir?’
   He towered above me and regarded me gravely. He was well over six feet tall, lean and lanky in that grey cardigan he always wore when the temperature got down to a brisk 27 degrees centigrade or so, and I would have been five foot nothing. Then he sat down at his desk, printed documents with the familiar Queensland Department of Education crest in front of him.
   ‘I’ve spoken to your mother and father….’
   My heart was now absolutely in my mouth. That was a truly fearsome statement – head teacher allied with parents, everybody obviously knowing what terrible sin I had committed except me. Maybe it was even worse than a caning offence, though what could be worse than that I could not imagine. Maybe Mr Sugars, the town policeman, was involved, and was using the Singer Sewing Machine oil can on his handcuffs even as we were speaking, to make sure they were in perfect running order when he marched in the door. 
   A caning was even starting to look like a preferable outcome of the discussion. OK, just give me six of the best, I don’t care what for – put them on reserve for a later offence if you like – just don't send me to jail… Such are the things that flash into the mind of a boy with a permanently guilty conscience and a vivid imagination – a worrying combination, especially when I was that boy.
   ‘….and I want to ask you some questions.’
   This was getting worse by the second.
   ‘Have you ever heard of Gatton Agricultural College?’
   Heard of what? My head was truly reeling now and nothing was making sense. Maybe if he had said ‘Gatton Reform School for Uncontrollable Country Children’ or something, we might have been getting on to the same wavelength. But Gatton College? I didn’t even know what that was or where Gatton might be. For all I knew, it could have been on Jupiter, and I definitely didn’t know where that was.
   ‘No, sir.’ This was surely not a time to fudge the truth. Right then, ignorance was the best defence, or at least, a fair delaying strategy.

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